A Meeting of the Open Minds

Every open adoption is different. Here, two adoptive mothers and one birth mother speak candidly about their experiences.

A family in an open adoption talks to birth parents on the phone

While Barbara and Lori are both parenting in open adoptions, their situations vary in key ways. Their children are in different cognitive stages — Barbara’s daughter, Beth, is a preschooler, and Lori has two preteens. Lori’s daughter, Tessa, has had a steady relationship with Crystal, her birth mom, and the families live close by. Barbara’s daughter, Beth, as well as Lori’s son, Reed, have had intermittent contact with their birth moms. Here, we show you the inner workings of two open adoptions.

How did you first learn about open adoption? Did it make sense to you from the start?

Barbara: I’m still learning about it, ha, and actually, it’s quite horrifying how little my husband, Tony, and I knew in the beginning. Required education about openness wasn’t a part of our homestudy, and this wasn’t that long ago, mind you. I thought open adoption was sending updates and pictures, and Tony and I didn’t think to question that. Had we educated ourselves about what open adoption really is, I’d like to think Tony and I could have wrapped our tiny brains around it.

Crystal: At first, I thought “open” meant I’d get to pick the parents. But the more I learned about it from my pregnancy counselor, the more it seemed that open adoption was what I wanted. Even now, many people think that “open” means letters and updates or that I’m expected to be in my child’s life 100 percent. It took some time to figure out what I wanted for my child and for me.

Lori: Though open adoption sounded scary when I first heard of it, it began to make sense when our agency explained it. Our adoption training included an exercise that helped me see things from my hypothetical child’s perspective. That’s when openness clicked for me.

Barbara: Leading up to Beth’s birth, Kim [Beth’s birth mother] and I spoke practically every week. Once we connected, it felt very strange that we were privy to her medical records and knew her social security number, but she only knew us as Barbara and Tony. At the hospital, Kim’s sister asked us, “What’s your last name?” Of course, we told her, and gave her our address as well, but I remember thinking, “Oops, should we have done that?” That second-guessing seems crazy now.

After Tony and I brought Beth home, Kim and I spoke on the phone and/or e-mailed several times a month. Without even knowing to call it “openness,” we were practicing it.

Lori: We have a similar story about bursting things wide open without really planning to. We knew Crystal for only a short time before Tessa was born, and we were careful to not ask too many personal questions or reveal too much. But the morning Crystal went into labor, she invited us to hang out with her, and things changed. We spent hours together at her mom’s house, tracking labor pains and walking around the block. By 5 p.m., it was time to head to the hospital. Roger and I wanted to pick up some things from home to prepare for the long night ahead, but we were giving Crystal a ride to the hospital. Before she knew our last name, she saw where we lived. So long, closed adoption!

How were you matched? What was your first conversation like? Your first meeting?

Barbara: Tony and I had just walked away from two unsettling situations. In the middle of all this, Tony’s mom suffered a stroke and died the next night. We were emotionally exhausted and told our attorney we needed a few months to think about what we wanted to do. The next day, our attorney called about Kim.

Our first conversation was — real. This was the first time my defenses were down. I told Kim about the two previous situations and why we chose to move on from them. I said that I wanted to get to know her and she, us. She expressed sadness for the other women, and candidly told me about her situation. Our connection felt authentic and I liked Kim. That felt good.

The first time we visited after the adoption, when Beth was two, Kim told me that she hadn’t expected that we would talk so much before the baby’s birth.

Crystal: When it came time to choose parents for my baby, I was given a stack of about 20 profiles. Every woman considering adoption will have her own values; I eliminated profiles along these lines: too rigid, too old, already have a child. I wanted fun and authentic. I narrowed it down to an A choice and a B choice. The A couple was unexpectedly knocked out of contention and I ended up going with the Bs — Lori and Roger.

We met on a Sunday afternoon at my pregnancy counselor’s office near the end of my pregnancy. I was a wreck, worrying about how they might judge me. But I fell in love with them right away. Roger was handsome, and Lori made me feel comfortable. I loved seeing them so giddy, even though they were trying to contain their excitement.

Lori: Yes, we attempted to take the “happiness with caution”  route. We were wrecks, too! So much was riding on this meeting. We knew it was important for Crystal to like us, but we also hoped to take a liking to her, for we knew that a genuine affinity would make a long-term relationship easier to build and sustain.

Crystal: I had a feeling from that first conversation that Roger and Lori would honor their commitments, that they would do as they said. Things just felt right. Everything has unfolded beautifully.

Barbara: “Nervous wreck”  seems to be the common thread to first meetings. My comfort was that I knew Kim and Charlie must be nervous too. As it happened, our conversation flowed pretty easily. Having Mia, Kim’s three-year-old daughter, there helped break the ice — along with Tony’s sleight of hand. Nothing like making a salt shaker magically go through a table to lighten the mood. Charlie told us he supported Kim in whatever her decision would be. We were at the restaurant for two or three hours, talking about how they met, how we met, work — even politics, which can be dicey with people you know well. But we had a meeting of the minds. The end of our evening turned emotional. As we hugged goodbye, Kim and I both began to cry. We knew we would move forward together.

Were you together when your child was born?

Crystal: I had a scene in mind for my baby’s birth. I wanted her to be welcomed joyfully, to have the chance to bond with her parents right away. So I invited Lori and Roger to be present for the birth. I called them the morning my labor began, and we went through it together. Those intense 24 hours became the foundation of intimacy and trust that we continue to build on.

Lori: It was a sacred experience to be invited to my daughter’s birth. Crystal had been so open with us for the sake of our daughter. Having been on the receiving end of that openness, it was easy to want to extend it back to her. We ignored the advice of our social workers to “make a clean getaway”  from the hospital. Instead, we stopped to visit Crystal’s grandmother, who was too ill to come to meet the baby. On that day, we became united by the daughter we all loved.

Barbara: Kim was scheduled for a C-section and wanted us at the hospital. The night before she gave birth, Kim suggested we go to dinner to meet some of her family. We were a big, noisy crowd — Kim, Charlie, and their son Jacob; Kim’s sister, her boyfriend, and their two kids; me and Tony and my parents. There was a celebratory feel to the evening, which I hadn’t expected. It felt completely weird and normal at the same time.

I remember a “parental shift”  happening at the hospital. At first, of course, the baby was in Kim’s room, and Tony and I would ask if it was alright to hold her. Both Charlie and Kim were like, “You don’t have to ask, she’s yours.”  The next day, the baby was moved to our room, with Kim’s permission. Now Charlie and Kim were the ones doing the asking, and we said the same thing: “You don’t have to ask, she’s yours.”

The killer was Kim saying goodbye to Beth…. I felt like I was witnessing an execution. Kim feeding her that last bottle, changing that last diaper, as we all knew the inevitable was coming — when we all went our separate ways.

What kind of ongoing contact did you discuss? Did you draw up a post-adoption contact agreement?

Lori: A PACA (post-adoption contact agreement) wasn’t brought up by our agency, nor is Colorado a state in which one would be legally enforced. At time of placement, we did not talk specifics of contact and expectations. Instead, we focused on building a trustworthy relationship, on rising to the occasion of being parents to this precious girl, and on providing her all the ingredients necessary for her to grow up whole. The premise of the book Crystal and I wrote stems from that decision we all made: Adoption creates a split between a person’s biology and her biography. Openness is an effective way to heal that split.

Crystal: From the beginning, we intuitively knew that “open”  didn’t just refer to contact, though that’s part of it. “Open”  means being aware of our own emotions and motivations and being honest in our relationships — being open-hearted.

Barbara: Kim and I talked a lot before the birth, but we never discussed what our relationship would be after we left the hospital — call it the baby elephant in the room. She said she wanted an open adoption, but I wonder whether she had a clear understanding that there was a range of openness. I wish we had talked about it. I think knowing that there would always be a place for her in Beth’s life may have given her some peace.

A month after Tony and I came home with Beth, we received a letter from Kim’s attorney stating that Kim wanted updates at three, six, nine, 12, 18, and 24 months, and at ages three, four, and five (“at which time, everyone will evaluate the situation to determine future updates” ). I suppose this was our agreement, although New York doesn’t legally enforce contact agreements. It didn’t feel right, especially since Kim and I were actively e-mailing and calling each other.

I’m happy to say we’ve exceeded the terms of our agreement letter. I update Kim frequently, and we’ve had two visits so far. We plan on seeing her at least once a year, and hope that she will come and stay with us, too, so she can really create a bond with Beth.

Is your child’s birth mother parenting other children? If so, what is their relationship like?

Barbara: Yes, two older than Beth and one younger. Beth loves being with the kids, and it was effortless to have them all together on our last visit. She remembers Jacob the most from our two visits, and will sometimes tell me she wants to talk to him. She’s only four, and I’m sure she’ll be asking more questions in the coming years.

Crystal: I was parenting a four-year-old when Tessa was born, and this has become a new issue in her tween years. Why did you keep him and not me? I had to explain exactly what things were like back then and why I made the decision — for her sake and for everyone else’s. It wasn’t that I wanted him more than you. I wanted the best for both my children.

Lori: I’m glad that Crystal is available to answer these questions. I’m not sure my answers would satisfy Tessa, even if they are the same answers Crystal gives.

Barbara: I want to know more about the kids’ relationship — how is it a typical sibling relationship? How does it differ?

Crystal: Tyler is now 17 years old and Tessa is nearly 13. They see each other several times a year, and Tessa occasionally stays with us overnight. Sometimes they fight like siblings because, well, they are siblings. They compete for my attention. They argue over the TV remote. They can also be kind and compassionate with each other. Visits are hard for Tessa sometimes, because she doesn’t know the household rules — and Tyler is only too happy to point them out to her. I’m not used to refereeing between two kids, or entertaining them when they have different interests, or being aware when one feels slighted. So spending time together is a growing experience for all three of us.

Barbara: One of my concerns is that, as they grow older, Beth and her siblings will move in different directions. If, say, one of Beth’s birth siblings doesn’t go to college (or if Beth doesn’t), how would that affect their relationship?

Lori: I think our job as parents is to normalize these relationships as much as possible and to treat our children’s birth families as extended families, so that our kids can build their relationships organically. We can help our kids navigate any difficult emotions that arise, but we don’t fix or meddle.

How do you talk about adoption and your child’s birth family? How has that changed over time?

Lori: Our goal is to be matter-of-fact about adoption and birth family. It’s our “normal,”  and we try to make these relationships No Big Deal. We do teach our children about privacy vs. secrecy, that they don’t have to tell other people anything they don’t want to, and also that there is no shame in their story. I hear both Tessa and Reed speaking frankly about their birth parents with their friends. Tessa might say, “My birth mom came to my game last week,”  or Reed might tell his friends, “The reason I have a birth dad is because my parents adopted me.”

We are now realizing some of the benefits of being open with our kids about adoption. They are at the ages/stages when they are able to articulate their emotions, questions, and attempts to integrate their biological and biographical identities. I’m grateful that they continue to let me in and I hope they continue to do so during their teen years.

Barbara: We, too, are matter-of-fact with Beth about her adoption. We started talking to her as a newborn, and she never seemed to mind when I stumbled along in the telling of her adoption story.

At this point, I’m primarily the one prompting Beth with questions, like, “I wonder if your brothers or sister can hula hoop like you? We should ask them,”  or “Whose belly did you grow in?”  Whenever we see a pregnant woman, it’s a great birth mother conversation starter. She’ll say things like, “I have two mommies”  or that she has a brother who lives in Indiana. I’m always on the lookout for opportunities to bring Kim and the kids (and Nana and Grandpa) into our everyday conversations.

Are you Facebook friends with your children’s birth mothers or other relatives?

Barbara: I am Facebook friends with Kim, Kim’s sister, father, and grandmother, as well as my daughter’s paternal birth-grandmother, Nana, as we like to call her. When Beth is old enough, she’ll have her own account and connect with her birth relatives. Before any friend requests were sent out, Tony and I gave a lot of thought as to whether we should use our main accounts. We didn’t know what kinds of personal information we all might be sharing, so we decided to create a separate account just for birth family members. So far, so good.

Lori: I am friends with all of our children’s birth parents who are on Facebook and with one birth-grandmother through my regular account. Our children do not yet have an online presence. When that time comes, they will be free to connect with their birth parents. My connections on Facebook with birth family members have been no different from interactions with other family members or friends.

Like other extended family relationships, open adoption can bring challenges as well as benefits. What’s one you’ve faced?

Barbara: We had a lot of contact the first year, and it’s been waning ever since, I’m afraid. At one point, eight months went by without hearing from Kim at all. When she called at the end of that drought, I was ready with a list of talking points, telling her how important I thought contact was for Beth, asking if we could set up a regular time to talk, and agreeing to connect on Facebook.

These days I’ll get a “like”  on a picture I posted on Facebook, or she’ll write a little something in response to my posts, but it isn’t what I wanted our contact to be. Although, when I needed some medical information, she, as well as my small circle of birth family Facebook friends, responded immediately.

So we are Facebook friends now, but, that isn’t the same as being friend friends. Recently, Kim wrote that she’ll never lose contact, yet she’s also said that the bigger Beth gets, the harder it is for her. It hurts to know she is hurting. I suggested that she reach out to other birth mothers for online support or that counseling (that we’d pay for) might be helpful, but got no response. Maybe I overstepped my bounds…maybe it was too much to hear, especially from me. I don’t know. I call her every couple of months and leave a message, letting her know we’re thinking of her and the kids. Right now, I feel that I am sowing the seeds, sowing the seeds…I just hope I’m not a pain in the ass as I sow.

The distance adds to the challenge. Our last visit was hectic. We went from one dinner or outing to the next, and saw so many people, that I never had time for a quiet conversation with Kim. And Beth held back, not going up to her for hugs or kisses. That must have hurt like hell. Tony and I are planning on renting a house for our next visit, so our time together can be more relaxed.

You know how it feels to meet someone new and you just want to get over the polite stage? You want to be able to invite them over and not care if your house is a mess? That’s where I’d like to be with Kim, but we’re still in that polite “clean” stage. I try to maintain perspective, believing that we’ll get there in time.

Lori: We’ve had to figure out how to manage varying levels of birth parent contact with our two children. Our daughter’s birth mom and birth dad both live in our metro area, but our son’s birth parents live in other states. There are variances among the four in geographic and in emotional distance. There is little we can do to “fix”  imbalances either by pestering for more contact with one child or limiting contact with the other. Instead, we deal with what we have and show our children how to do the same. When one of our children gets sad or upset about something connected to their birth parents, we listen and love and give the space and support to move through the emotions.

What do you feel has been the biggest 
benefit of open adoption for your child? 
For her birth mother? For you?

Barbara: As Beth grows, she will always know she is loved by her first mother and family. They are forever a part of her life and our lives. That this is the way our family works.

Kim has told me that it’s hard to see Beth grow up away from her, and she has cried many tears. She’s also told me that, as tough as it is, she still thinks that she couldn’t have raised Beth and that she is happy that Beth is with us. I hope as Beth and Kim spend time together, Kim will feel that she has a special, valuable, and valued role in Beth’s life.

The biggest benefit for me is knowing that Beth will know her full life story. She will have real relationships with both sides — adoptive and biological — of her family. I look at open adoption as an invitation to deepen our relationships and truly become part of each other’s lives. I can wrap my head around openness now; it feels right and is normalizing. Whenever I hear about other families’ situations — single parent homes, two moms/dads, or divorce — I’m quick to point it out to Beth: “Oh, see, that’s how that family works. All families are different.”

Lori: An adult adoptee once told me, “If I want to know how to change the spark plugs, I ask my dad. If I want to know how to put on mascara, I ask my mom. Best source = best information.”

This is one of the benefits of having contact within an adoption. My children can ask me anything about their biographies, like what were their first words, when did they lose their first tooth, what cute things did they do at the kindergarten recital? And if they have questions on biology — where did they get those toes? Who else loved sports or math? What’s up with these food allergies? — they can ask their birth parents. Through openness and contact we can give our kids all the pieces of themselves.

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